The Tesla factory in Fremont, California, has been conducting business as usual this week, even with an order from local officials to “shelter in place,” according to Reuters. Thousands of cars were visible in the employee parking lot despite a three-week lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- The Tesla factory in Fremont, California, is still open despite a “shelter in place” order issued for Alameda county, where it is located, one of six counties covered by the order.
- Determining if Tesla is in violation is up to the county public health department; the county has said that Tesla is not an essential business and that manufacturing cars is not allowed.
- It is unclear whether Tesla is actually halting production, and CEO Elon Musk has been downplaying the seriousness of coronavirus and COVID-19 on Twitter.
The Tesla Factory in Fremont is still building cars despite a “shelter in place” order. (Photo: Getty Images)
Six counties are under “shelter in place” orders
Fremont is in Alameda County, which is one of six counties currently under a “shelter in place” order. It limits activities, travel, and business operations to only those that are essential and recommends people stay home in all but the most crucial of circumstances. The Alameda County Sheriff indicated that Tesla did not meet the criteria for conducting business as usual. It tweeted on Tuesday, “Tesla: @Tesla is not an essential business as defined in the Alameda County Health Order. Tesla can maintain minimum basic operations per the Alameda County Health Order.”
That doesn’t mean the factory must close completely, but that operations need to be scaled back to only minimum basic functions. These would include maintaining the value of inventory, security, and the processing of payroll and benefits. Yet in addition to a crowded employee parking area, several container trucks have been seen pulling onto the factory grounds at the Tesla plant. There were also two food trucks parked in front of the building and workers were observed walking back from a restaurant across the street.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been critical of what he calls panic over the coronavirus. (Photo: Getty Images)
What is considered “essential?”
According to CNBC, Tesla employees received emails late on Monday indicating that they shouldn’t come to work if they don’t feel well or are uncomfortable with the idea. In the email, CEO Elon Musk also told employees that no Tesla worker had been confirmed as infected as of March 16. He indicated that he fully planned to be at work despite growing concerns about the virus. Musk has been critical of the reaction to coronavirus, going so far as to call the panic “dumb” in a tweet earlier this month. He also tweeted that the danger of panic was worse than the actual virus.
A follow-up email from North American HR leader Valerie Workman indicated Tesla plans to continue its manufacturing activities as they are essential to the national infrastructure. Employees who work in administrative roles were instructed to stay home, while those involved directly in factory production should continue to report to work.
What exactly constitutes “essential” isn’t entirely clear. The Alameda County Sheriff and Tesla don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue, but it’s ultimately up to the county public health department. It issued the “shelter in place” order and has the power to decide whether or not the factory can stay open.
On Wednesday night, Tesla agreed to reduce the number of workers in its factory, even as Musk continued to downplay the situation, posting on Twitter, “My guess is that the panic will cause more harm than the virus, if that hasn’t happened already.” A county spokesman said they took the number of workers from 10,000 to 2,500. That number is lower, but not so low that it couldn’t be making cars. Discussions are ongoing to determine the measures needed for Tesla to be in full compliance.
WHY THIS MATTERS
This is new territory for companies and for public health agencies. Coming up with a definitive answer needs to happen quickly if the “shelter in place” order is to be effective in stopping the spread of coronavirus. With the recent launch of its highly anticipated Model Y crossover, Tesla has a huge financial incentive to keep building cars, but that concern shouldn’t trump public health.